Senators Approve Funds For Feds To Restore Cannabis Genetics

Photo Credit: Laura Lezza

A powerful U.S. Senate panel is directing agriculture authorities to begin building up the nation’s stockpile of cannabis genetics, and they’re setting aside half a million dollars to support the work.

Specifically, the Senate Appropriations Committee wants the federal Agricultural Research Service to spend $500,000 to maintain an industrial hemp seed bank.

“The Committee recognizes the increasing demand for industrial hemp for a variety of uses , and its growing importance as a crop for U.S. farmers,” senators wrote in a report attached to legislation funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Fiscal Year 2019. “When the nation’s industrial hemp germplasm was destroyed in the 1980s, researchers lost access to publicly available germplasm for plant breeding purposes.”

As a 2003 article in the journal Economic Botany reported:

“There are no publicly available germplasm collections of C. sativa in North America. The hundreds of seed collections acquired for Small’s studies (Small 1979) were destroyed in 1980 because Canadian government policy at that time envisioned no possibility that hemp would ever be developed as a legitimate crop; voucher specimens, however, were deposited in five herbaria. An inquiry regarding the 56 United States Department of Agriculture hemp germplasm collections grown by Small and Beckstead (1973) resulted in the reply that there are no remaining hemp collections in USDA germplasm holdings, and, indeed, that were such to be found they would have to be destroyed.

The new federally funded hemp seed stockpile will be housed at the department’s Plant Genetics Research Unit in Columbia, Missouri.

“The scarcity of high quality hemp seed is a roadblock to the development of an American hemp industry,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, said in an email. “We are extremely pleased that Congress is providing funding to ensure that USDA will once again collect and store hemp germplasm and make it available to American farmers and researchers.”

Hemp and marijuana are both varietals of the cannabis plant. While the former does not have psychoactive properties, it is used in the development of a wide variety of foods, textiles, building materials and other products.

The text of the Agriculture Department funding legislation itself, which the Appropriations Committee unanimously approved on Thursday, continues a current provision that allows states to carry out industrial hemp research programs without federal interference:

“Sec. 729. None of the funds made available by this Act or any other Act may be used—

(1) in contravention of section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (7 U.S.C. 5940); or

(2) to prohibit the transportation, processing, sale, or use of industrial hemp, or seeds of such plant, that is grown or cultivated in accordance with subsection section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014, within or outside the State in which the industrial hemp is grown or cultivated.

Also in the report attached to the bill, senators are directing the Agriculture Department to publicize the eligibility of people carrying out such hemp research to receive federal funding to support that work:

“Industrial Hemp. – The Committee is aware of statements made by the Department acknowledging the eligibility of researchers participating in industrial hemp pilot programs as defined by Section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 to compete for Federal funds awarded by the Department. The Committee directs the Department to work with and inform stakeholders of this eligibility and to support industrial hemp research as authorized by Section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014.

The developments come as the push to legalize hemp outright is heating up in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently filed a bill to remove hemp from the federal definition of marijuana, which would allow farmers across the country to grow the crop in accordance with state laws.

Fully a quarter of senators have signed onto the bill as cosponsors, and McConnell has announced he intends to insert its language into the larger Farm Bill moving through Congress this year.

House Republicans blocked an effort to add hemp legalization to that chamber’s version of the broad food and agriculture legislation, but if the language is successfully inserted into the Senate bill, it stands a good chance of reaching President Trump’s desk.

In a related development that hasn’t previously been reported, the White House recently responded to an industrial hemp petition that received more than the required 100,000 signatures last year.

The response reads:

“Thank you for your petition regarding cultivation of hemp by American farmers.

State authorities—often a State’s department of agriculture—will generally be the best source for information about issues related to hemp cultivation.

Section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 authorizes growing and cultivating industrial hemp for research purposes in States where such growth and cultivation is legal under State law. Under this provision, State agencies, and properly licensed, registered, or otherwise authorized persons and organizations—like institutions of higher education and persons and entities that contract with them, may cultivate hemp for research purposes.

The United States Department of Agriculture, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Department of Justice work together to implement section 7606.

Thank you, again, for contacting the White House.

While the original petition addressed broader issues, such as actual legalization of the crop’s cultivation, the White House reply addressing the current legality of hemp research programs goes further than an Obama administration’s reaction to a similar petition in 2012, which dismissed the crop as an illegal Schedule I substance.

Also last week, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sent an internal directive instructing agents not to go after legal hemp products.